NCAA sanctions Miami women's hoops for NIL-related infraction

February 24, 2023, 2:09 PM

The NCAA issued its first sanctions in a case related to name, image and likeness opportunities for college athletes Friday, dinging the Miami women's basketball program with a year of probation and other minor penalties for its involvement in urging a meeting between a wealthy alum and two players who transferred to the school last summer.

The case involves several prominent figures in the nascent marketplace for NIL deals, none of whom received any direct sanctions from the NCAA. The sanctions stem from a meeting between Miami alum John Ruiz and transfer basketball players  Haley and Hanna Cavinder.

Ruiz has signed more than 100 Hurricanes athletes to NIL deals to promote his company LifeWallet, some of them reportedly worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. His conversations and deals with athletes who have transferred to Miami in a number of sports have come under NCAA scrutiny in the past year. Ruiz, who was not sanctioned or disassociated from the school as a result of this case, told ESPN that the NCAA has no right to stop him from contacting any parties with whom he wants to sign a contract for his business.

"It has little to no substance and no effect on me at all," Ruiz said of the sanctions announced Friday. "It's mostly focused on the coach, and that's unfortunate. But it doesn't affect me or my business. If it did, I'd be suing the NCAA and it wouldn't be a good day for them."

Miami coach Katie Meier previously served a school-imposed three-game suspension at the start of the Hurricanes' season as a punishment related to this case. The NCAA said Meier exchanged text messages with Ruiz saying that she would make sure the Cavinder twins knew who he was after he tried to arrange a meeting with them before their official visit to campus last summer.

"For over 30 years, I have led my programs with integrity and have been a collaborative partner with the NCAA," Meier said in a statement released Friday. "Collegiate athletics is in transformation, and any inadvertent mistake I made was prior to a full understanding of implemented guardrails and the clarification issued by the NCAA in May. We all look forward to a time when there is a national solution to help our student-athletes, coaches and institutions."

The fact that Ruiz was not punished as part of the negotiated settlement between the NCAA and the University of Miami "troubled" the panel assembled to approve the sanctions.

"Boosters are involved with prospects and student-athletes in ways the NCAA membership has never seen or encountered," the members of the panel said in a statement released by the NCAA on Friday. "... In that way, addressing impermissible booster conduct is critical, and the disassociation penalty presents an effective penalty available to the Committee on Infractions."

The Cavinders, who have more than 3 million followers on social media, have been among the most prominent college athletes cashing in on their online fame with the ability to sign endorsement deals since the NCAA changed its rules in July 2021. According to Ruiz, he hosted the twins and their parents for a dinner at his house after the former Fresno State basketball players had decided to attend Miami.

Since 2021, a growing number of college sports administrators and coaches have voiced complaints that the NCAA has failed to enforce a limited set of rules governing the use of a college athlete's name, image and likeness. It is a violation of the rules to use NIL opportunities as a recruiting inducement to persuade an athlete to attend a particular school.

Due to state laws that protect NIL activities and a lack of cooperation from schools, the NCAA enforcement staff say they have a difficult time gathering evidence to substantiate any of the widespread claims that some coaches and boosters are using NIL deals as incentives to lure players to a school. In this case, the NCAA obtained text messages between Meier and Ruiz that showed a violation had occurred.

The NCAA changed its rules in January to place the burden of proof in any NIL-related investigation on the party accused of committing an NIL violation. This case was opened before those rule changes went into effect; otherwise, the NCAA investigators might have had more standing under their own rules to punish Ruiz or try to force him to prove his endorsement deal with the Cavinders was not intended to be an inducement.

Ruiz said he does not intend to change the way he uses college athletes as endorsers for his business and noted that he did not think any attempt by the NCAA to prevent him from conducting his business would stand up to a lawsuit.

Ruiz questioned why the NCAA opted to issue its first sanctions in a sport where NIL deals as recruiting inducements have not been viewed as a widespread issue. Most complaints about improper inducements have come from football and men's basketball teams. He also questioned why the NCAA would focus on two athletes who have some of the largest legitimate market values of any of their peers because of the size of their social media following.

"You're dealing with a sport that essentially is growing and we want to grow." Ruiz said. "To try to tarnish these young girls from their intention, you're almost trying to penalize these young ladies who did nothing wrong. It's in really poor taste, but luckily for them it doesn't have anything to do with me, because if they did I'd be suing them."